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For many years I have asked what matters most to you? What matter most to you in your life? Your family? Your health? Your job? Your income? Your pet? This Church? God? The world? Over the years I have gotten some amazing answers. One woman told me that her hair used to matter most to her, she loved her hair, she wore it like a crown, like a mantle of beauty and power. And then she got cancer and lost all that hair, and now her health matters a great deal, but more importantly, what matters most to her are her two children, even more than her health. She had faith in them, faith being that word that describes what matters most to each of us. Many, many professed that the church mattered if not most, a close second. Not God as such but her manifestation in the love of those who know you and hold you, and call you friend even if they know all your faults.
I still think it’s important to ask what matters most. As individuals on a spiritual quest, we ask that question one way or another all the time. In fact, it’s at the heart of our identity as UUs. It’s what makes our theology; theology being the study of what matters most.
Deciding on our theology is only part of the story of why we are here. In recent years, I ask another question alongside what matters most. I ask, “whose are we?” To whom do we belong? Who holds our loyalty? Certainly your family? Perhaps other groups? You certainly belong to this church, in varying degrees whether or not you have decided to become a member. The other day the Leadership Development Team and I discovered that besides the 400 or so members we have here and the 200 kids, we have another 400 or so friends who attend here in one way or another. Whose are we? We are each other’s, in our keeping and learning and growing as a people. We help form each other. One of our own, Rev. Lara Fuchs who as our intern minister last year, just emailed me to say she is alive and well in Switzerland and working with our European Congregations on their identity and connection. We are living our faith in the best of what we can become.
Whose are we? We belong to a family to be sure. We may or may not consider ourselves as part of that family but we still belong. And yet, I don’t believe this church is a family. Families are complicated by systems of dysfunction that last for life! We have our dysfunctions here but being related for life is something we choose, families don’t get to choose. Whose are we? We are part of this church. We belong here. We are each other’s. The real meaning of humanity, humility and humanism.
Whose are we? We belong to each other but only in the present. Sometimes we can belong to a place or a person who has been lost to us, but even that in time will fade. We belong to one another in the here and now. That realization brings us the greatest happiness.
And this is what ministry is: Answering the question of belonging with the affirmative, right here and right now. I am yours. You know I did a lot of spiritual wandering in my younger years. I left college a confirmed atheist. My religion was renewable energy, I was going to change the world one solar panel at a time and so I pounded up and down the roads of Iowa in my bright Orange pickup knocking on doors, selling solar. I got married and when that and my business fell apart, I was invited by a friend to come to the American Baptist Church up the street. I came and something powerful started to shift in me. I was welcomed, warmly, honestly, for who I was, a broken man with an impossible dream. I came every Sunday. The pastor was a large and kind man. He convinced me that I could turn myself over to a higher power. He found in me a strength I didn’t think I had. And his people were as warm and generous as a people could be. As time went on I healed. I knew I wouldn’t be baptized in that church, but I also knew I could answer the question Whose are we? With the convection, that I belonged, for a time to that congregation. I was this imperfect man who belonged to God, or to my working definition of God as the Spirit of Life. I belonged to a larger universe and it was good.
Membership is at the heart of what it means to belong here. You are always welcome here. And if you have found here a spiritual home then I encourage you to take the next step: Join us as a member of this congregation. You might think you are a member already, but if you haven’t signed the membership book and made some kind of contribution of record you are not quite there yet. By becoming a member you are indicating that you find in this place a people, your people. We are a covenantal tradition, what that means is that we are not bound together by a creed or a baptism but rather by a promise, the promise we say every week in our affirmation, Love is the Spirit of this Church and Service its Law, by becoming a member you are committing your life to this proposition. See David Vita, our Director of Membership to learn more.
Becoming a member here is not a sacrifice, it’s a liberation. As Universalists, we truly don’t believe that there is a God trying to judge us or trip us up. When I went to one school, I walked into the cafeteria and there on the table was a plate of fruit. Next to it was a sign that said “Take one. God is watching.” Next to the fruit was a plate of cookies, which had a sign next to it, written by a fellow student, that said “Take as many as you want. God is watching the fruit.” God, Spirit of Life, the Force, is love.
Whose are we? I think we belong to these communities, this country, this planet, and the cosmos. We also belong to ourselves. Last week, I spoke about how important it was to recognize and even welcome that which causes us suffering. Only by welcoming that pain to sit beside us, can we stop fighting the pain, which as we all know, makes the suffering worse. In fact, I am more and more convinced that we are really only free to change once we accept who we are as broken in the first place. Tara Broch, a Buddhist teacher, tells the story of a Catholic priest who was battling alcoholism. He had lost his parish, his health, his purpose. Good meaning people tried to convince him to get help, counselling, AA, rehab. Somehow he resisted. And then one day, an old friend of his, who had problems of his own, stopped by to see him. And he said “Don’t change. I like you the way you are”. Suddenly the priest felt a wave of Grace wash over him. Suddenly he felt whole and forgiven. In that simple act of love, “I like you the way you are”, his friend affirmed the essential goodness at the heart of this broken man and with that affirmation, the priest found the strength to go on and get the help he needed. Today he is still in recovery and back in the parish. (from Tara Brach Radical Acceptance) When we ask whose are we, we need to start by answering that we are ourselves, good and worthy, our first principle as UUs. Even when we have done terrible things, who we are is not the same as what we have done. The author Rob Bell tells of a city bus driver in Manhattan who upon his last stop for the night up in Harlem says, “This is the last stop. As you get off you are welcome to tell me all your troubles so that you don’t have to carry them home. I will take them.” And then he drives the empty bus with all those troubles over to the depot in Queens and parks it for the night. What if we were to do that? If you were to tell me your troubles so that you didn’t have to take them home. That’s whose we are.
Whose are we? We are part of the divine in ways we can’t always see. We belong to each other in ways we can’t always see, in a connectedness that goes beyond the rational. We belong to each other and the cosmos. The point is to let life live through us, to let love live through us. To welcome life as it is moving through us. This for me is the essence of faith. It’s how we let life live through us and how we make a life worth living. Whose are we? There are many answers to that. But ultimately, we belong to the cosmos. We belong to the earth. We belong to life. We belong to each other. We belong to ourselves. We may not feel that ever widening sense of belonging today, but it is there. You are loved and you are not alone. Amen.